Saturday, March 12, 2011

Life's A Beach, Chapter 9

Apparently I’m not so good at keeping up a blog. I hope you’ve all had a great four months...

I - Merry Christmas!

I was worried about going two months without any work, since the summer break goes from early December to February, so I was relieved to score a week-long gig teaching music at a neighbourhood school. It was mostly chaotic, as any last week of school is bound to be, and the kids were all hyped up and even ruder than usual, but by-the-day relief work pays really well and it was good to have a huge bank deposit before the holidays.

It’s hard to find a relief teacher who is comfortable teaching music, so they expect you to just move around the school, giving classroom teachers their non-contact time and basically baby-sitting in thirty-minute blocks. When you can teach music, they get really excited – especially during Christmas concert week; I ‘helped’ with a lot of class rehearsals and performances and my ‘expertise’ was requested to help the seventh-graders with their graduation song. Now, first, I am not an expert, and second, I can’t stand listening to a bunch of embarrassed pre-teens sing along to a crappy pop song. The teachers wanted me to help the kids reach some of the notes that they were having trouble with, as if a bit of deep breathing would help them cover three octaves. They all just stood there mumbling and whispering their way through the song, which was obviously one of the teacher’s favourite country tunes – there was no way the parents would understand a word they were singing, which defeated the whole purpose of choosing a touchy-feely, reach-for-the-stars song in the first place. I suggested that they play the song as a soundtrack to a slide show, or do sign language and just leave the singing to Faith Hill, but they thought I was joking. There’s a reason why people are paid to write choir arrangements, you know?

On the last day of school, I put on movies in one corner of the room while some of the students helped the music teacher clean out her room (she had a throat infection and couldn’t teach, but she was still in the school); I know I go on and on about hot Christmas, but it was definitely weird to be watching “Frosty the Snowman” with all these tanned, sweaty, barefoot kids in a sauna of a classroom, fans spinning madly, sweat pooling in my underwear and mosquitoes circling the room like little vultures. They have Aussie versions of Christmas songs (“Dashing through the bush, in a rusty Holden Ute, kicking up the dust, with an esky in the boot...”) but need to make some Christmas-on-the-beach movies as well; snow culture makes no sense.

That last day, the grade one teachers decided they’d rather have me help them with their class party than have the kids come to music. Rather than helping organize the food or decorations, I was handed the hose and the dishwashing detergent and put in charge of the slip-and-slide. In the name of the festive season, I was wearing a green, knee-length sundress; I’ll leave it to you to guess how long it took before the dress was soaking wet, muddy and clinging to me like plastic wrap. I didn’t realize the extent of it until one of the kids said “um, miss, your knickers are showing,” at which point I began attempting unsuccessfully to hold the dress away from my body while hosing down the slip-and-slide tarp and herding the kids into an approximately organized queue. Luckily, six-year-olds don’t really care about grown-up bodies and other than having a giggle at the muddy splotches all over my dress, they were much more interested in launching themselves down a hill on a dish soap-covered tarp. My next class, however, was year six, and eleven-year-olds aren’t so easily distracted; the material was thin enough that it must have dried pretty quickly, but it certainly felt like ages, sitting in my underwear, watching “Frosty the Snowman.”

(Incidentally, they started out making fun of the movie – even though they had voted to watch it – but after a few minutes they forgot to be cool and just settled down into it; when Frosty melted, I looked around the group of students and they were all sitting with their mouths open, completely absorbed in the movie. Cute!)

Instead of us going down to Townsville, this year Mark’s parents, Graham and Mary, came up to spend Christmas with us; both sisters were involved with their in-laws, so it was just the four of us. They drove up with their caravan and stayed twenty minutes up the coast at Ellis Beach, which made it a bit difficult during massively rainy days. They liked having their own space, though, which came in handy when they got stuck here for an extra week because all the major roads in Queensland were flooded and blocked.

(Our first time going to visit them at the caravan we almost didn’t make it because the torrential rain made driving impossible. When we finally got there, we huddled under the tarp and took turns sweeping the water off so it wouldn’t collapse – and still, they didn’t come to stay with us! I guess I’m not a camper at heart; at the first sign of rain, I’m looking for the nearest hotel.)

The camera doesn’t pick up how much water there was; it was like a curtain.

(We took advantage of a brief break in the rain to walk along the lovely, misty beach.)

Over the two weeks we did lots of reading, puzzling (I got two new puzzles for Christmas! Yay!), movie-watching, board game-playing and eating – including a big Christmas lunch with roast ham and sticky date pudding, and a first sushi experience for Mark’s parents. On Christmas Eve Graham went to see “Tron” with Mark, which let me off the hook; I owed him one for “Nine” and was afraid I would have to spend two hours of my life in a black and green computer fantasy nightmare. Mary and I had coffee instead.

We also did a big team shop on Boxing Day, during which I got my brand... new... (drum roll)... laptop!

Mark is a computer geek, you see, and takes great pleasure in installing new programs and operating systems, just for kicks. Sharing a computer with him means that my files can suddenly be rearranged and stored somewhere new and inaccessible, which freaks me out. Now I have Charlie, my Acer buddy: the desktop is arranged how I like it, the files are filed how I like them and no one will change anything without my permission. (“Charlie” is extra satisfying because then PC is Pretty Charlie. I know we aren’t supposed to get attached to material objects, but isn’t it nice having something so new and clean?)

Whenever the rain let up, we’d go wandering with Graham and Mary.

(Checking out flooding was a favourite activity: this part of the river is usually about half this size; the picnic benches along the banks were completely submerged.)

This is the waterfall at Stoney Creek, of special interest to those of you who saw it with a lot less water in it.

II – Happy New Year!

We were really slow and disorganized about finding something to do and by the time we got around to making plans, all the restaurants we were interested in were booked out. We considered a picnic on the beach to watch the fireworks but couldn’t commit to sitting in the rain and since I don’t like crowds, the idea of joining the rest of Cairns by the waterfront wasn’t too appealing. What I really wanted was to wear elegant clothes and go dancing to swanky jazz – basically I wanted to recreate the ‘Cheek to Cheek’ scene from ‘The English Patient’ – but this is Cairns, where ‘elegant’ means shoes-and-shirt-required, so we ended up going with the parents’ suggestion and ate at a beach bar beside the caravan park.

Veal parmigiana and onion rings were the meals of choice; they were fresh out of caviar and oysters!

It was far too wet to stay for the fireworks, so Mark and I headed home, went for a rainy walk to help digest the pub food, watched an episode of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and were asleep by 10:30. Ring-a-ding ding!

III – Antiquate

On January 19th, while I was in the middle of my 15-minute buns workout for dummies with Gay Gasper, I got a phone call from my brother. He was in the hospital, exhausted and excited and... a new dad! Hooray! Cameron Riley Thomas was born, and Aunt Katy along with him. (‘Auntie Kate’ was out for obvious reasons and no one seemed keen on my suggestion to be known as K-Dog, though there is still time to slide it in there...)

I’ve spent many an hour poring through pictures (often crying) and have met little Cam twice on Skype – totally scrumptious. So I’m going to indulge myself and share some of my favourite pictures with you:

Lindsay getting to know the new bub.

Proud Nana Honey, proud Papou Alain.

Cutest outfit ever, unfortunately wouldn’t fit properly in the car seat...

Possibly my favourite picture of all. And look at that squished little face!

IV – Kiss My Yasi!

You are probably expecting my cyclone experience to be a really exciting, interesting part of the update: prepare to be disappointed.

There were storms a-brewing, cyclones included, so we were expecting lots of foul weather. All of a sudden, though, there was a category 5 coming straight for Cairns, tomorrow. I set out with a list of council-suggested emergency kit supplies: flashlight, battery radio, spare batteries, candles and matches, fuel lamp, portable stove, masking tape, water and waterproof bags. Obviously, though, the time to get your cyclone supplies is at the beginning of cyclone season, not the day before a massive one lands on your doorstep: by the time I got through the traffic and parked (illegally) a mile away from the store – the only spot I could find – the only thing I could get was a flashlight. Every store – hardware, department, convenience, grocery – was out of water, matches, batteries... everything. (Though I did pick up some chewy candies and hand soap while I was out...) You’re supposed to fill your gas tank, in case you have to evacuate, but traffic was completely backed up with people lining up to get into a gas station, most of which ran out of fuel within a couple of hours. I was starting to get pretty nervous about the whole thing.

The cyclone was due Wednesday night, so Mark and I spent Wednesday getting the house ready: everything brought upstairs, valuables – passports, laptops, health documents, etc – into a waterproof Rubbermaid bin, windows taped up (with the little tape we had in the house, since I couldn’t get any at the shops), furniture stacked against windows and walls, all surfaces cleared, cupboards taped shut.

You’re also supposed to fill as many buckets, bottles, sinks and tubs as possible, as it can be days or weeks without water after the cyclone. Mark’s sister called to give me hell for staying in Cairns instead of driving down to Townsville; while I was on the phone with her, the tub that I was filling downstairs overflowed and completely flooded the basement – it took over an hour to sweep and mop it out. So, nice start to The Big Storm, with red, blistered hands and a wet basement.

We set up safe bunkers in the bathrooms – upstairs in case of flood, downstairs in case the roof blew off – with blankets, cushions, flashlight etc. I also cooked up a few meals to use the meat before the power went off, figuring we’d ultimately throw less away. Then, with everything boarded up and packed away, and with platefuls of Moroccan chicken (even though I was feeling anxious and didn’t want to eat anything), we sat and watched the increasingly doomsday-ish news coverage, listening to the wind get stronger and waiting for the shit to hit the fan.

Eventually we decided that we should try and get some sleep before the worst part hit. We left a hallway light on so that we’d know when the power went off and left the back door open so we’d hear and feel the wind when it got crazy and we could take action. I dozed rather fitfully because I was so nervous, sleeping on and off throughout the night, listening to the admittedly wild wind and rain, and then eventually it was morning. The light was still on, one leaf had blown into our room. Cyclone Yasi: done and done.

This is the back area, which is covered and has a bunch of trees. Behind the fence is the covered parking area for the apartment buildings behind us; all of this cover and foliage obviously kept the wind out.

Now, other places weren’t nearly as lucky; the cyclone ended up veering back south, which put us north of the eye, the best place to be. Under the eye or south of it is where all the storm surges happen and where the wind is at its worst. Townsville, where Mark’s sister thought we should be hiding out with his parents, was out of power for days and days. Some towns, including Mission Beach – where we went for Mark’s birthday – were completely destroyed. A major sugar factory was damaged beyond repair and closed down. Farmers took a big hit as well; between the floods and the cyclone, pretty much all of Queensland’s crops have been wiped out. Just looking at food prices in the grocery stores is enough to indicate how much was lost. Yasi’s been replaced by Libya, New Zealand and now Japan in the news, so I don’t really know where it’s all at, but considering that people are still homeless from the floods, I’m sure that things are still pretty lousy for a lot of Queenslanders. Sorry that I don’t have a more interesting story to tell, but I’m pretty glad that it turned out to be boring and overblown, considering the alternative.

V – Living the Day-to-Day

Well, it’s starting to get cooler overnight, which is nice; I’m able to sleep in a bit if I have the morning off, if I can tune out the cockatoos. I have some cockatoo and frog video recordings that I wanted you to hear, but I can’t figure out how to load them onto either this kind of document or the blog, so it might be for another time. Suffice it to say, they’re loud, they’re annoying, they never shut up. The frogs go into drain pipes when it rains, which amplifies their croaks to unbelievable levels. You can’t listen to the news, you can’t hear your cd player, you sometimes can’t even have a conversation with someone in the same room, they’re so damn loud.

One of the most annoying things about the heat is that when you sit in front of a fan, it blows your nose hairs around and makes you all itchy and irritated.

As far as dead animals around the house, during a Big Sunday Clean I found a whole stash of little dried gecko corpses behind the curtains, which just goes to show that you have to clean out corners more often than I do. Also, last week I noticed a really unpleasant smell, not unlike that of dead flowers, and figured that some of the plants in the back yard were rotting out. Mark went digging around, though, and found a dead, bloated cane toad. Gross!

As far as live animals around the house, our fire alarm has been cock-teasing our neighbour’s dog. The alarm is low on batteries, which I know because it started chirping in the middle of the night. A loud, piercing chirp, every twenty or thirty seconds, that sounds a bit like a yappy dog – or maybe sounds exactly like a yappy dog, because this other dog got into a whole long conversation with it. Ours would chirp, then the big dog would give a big bark and wait for the next one. You’d think he’d give up after a while, what with the fire alarm saying the exact same thing over and over again – who wants to chat with such an idiot dog? – but he kept it up until I couldn’t take it anymore, poked around with a broom and then, when that didn’t work, made Mark dismantle it – which meant perching precariously between the railing and the shelves in the hall closet. Good, brave Mark. That poor dog barked another few times and then, presumably feeling rejected and lonely with the sting of unrequited love, gave up.

As for improvements around the house, I finally cleaned out the second kitchen drawer!

Why did I wait so long, feeling stressed out each time I reached for a wooden spoon or the scissors? Now it’s tidy and organized and all the cooking utensils are in a pretty basket beside the stove. I am finally able to sleep at night. Most of my dreams involve the opening and closing of tidy drawers...

If I’m up early enough, I strap on my i-pod, set up my running playlist and jog around the neighbourhood, though I still can’t run more than 15 minutes at a time without getting a major cramp. I’m not happy about it. When it’s too late (and hot), though, or when I really don’t feel like going public, I do exercise tapes in the living room with all the fans on full-blast. I have a good yoga one, a couple of really fun zumba ones, and this set of four 15-minute Workouts for Dummies that I totally love. The host, whose name is Gay Gasper – honestly – is so muscular that it makes me feel kind of queasy to look at her. I mean, this woman is fit. It’s a bit demoralising to see how effortlessly she whips through the various exercises while I’m struggling and making crazy faces, but she just seems so nice that I feel really good about exercising with her. She doesn’t judge, you know? She just wants everyone to reach their best fitness level, whatever that may be. Gay’s the best.

My new favourite thing is when Mark decides he wants to get a bit of exercise and he does the tape, either with me or on his own. The actual workouts are easy enough to follow, but the quick warm-ups at the beginning of each segment are aerobics-based. I’m so used to that kind of exercise that it hadn’t occurred to me that it might be hard to figure out the steps, but watching Mark try to follow the routine is enough to make my week. (The fact that he’s smashed after doing one or two of the routines also makes me feel great, as I do all four and am now using weights to make them harder, so I’m proud to see improvement.) If I could load videos onto this update you’d all be in for a treat, let me tell you.

VI – Out and About in Cairns

Mark and I are trying to get to all the things that were on our original to-do list, as we’re winding down our time in Cairns and when it’s time to go, we’ll obviously be busy with things other than hanging out at that nice cafe or doing that hike we never got around to. (Word on the street is that when our new lease runs out on June 15th, we’ll be moving to wherever the next job is. That’s the third time we’ve set a date, though, so I won’t be surprised if we’re stuck here longer than that.)

One day last year when we went out exploring the area – unfortunately in the middle of a major storm – we found this super cute beach-side cafe in Holloway’s Beach, which we couldn’t wait to frequent in nicer weather. Mark’s been super busy all year with his studies, though, and never made it there. (I’ve been back alone, with Bron and with Mom, so he really felt like he was missing out.) At the first chance – which meant free time and a bit of sun – we headed straight there for breakfast.

The furniture is all uneven and original, with tables and shelves carved into trees – it’s very rustic and natural-looking.

Mark enjoying...

... the view.

So nice to have some sun – good thing we stocked up on vitamin D while we could; we haven’t had much since!

Mark had been wanting to do the mangroves walk for a while, so that was our next stop. Do you know what mangroves are? Trees that grow in salt water, I think would be the general definition, though I may be missing the mark. They’re the best place to find crocodiles, as far as I understand, so it’s a creepy place to wander around, plus it’s muddy and gross, smells like rot. Lots of crabs scuttling around everywhere, though, which is always fun.

Mark, conscientious citizen, picks up rubbish in the mangroves.

See? Muddy.

We were pretty disappointed with the whole experience, but at least we know how to make our own fun: No Hands! is the best game ever.

One thing we’ve discovered is that the Civic Theatre has lots of stand-up comedy come through. We’ve been to a couple of shows and it’s super fun. Plus, we go to dinner early so we’ll make the show, and it turns out that one of our favourite restaurants has an early bird special, twenty per cent off if you sit down before 6:30. Yowza! We can’t get enough! Now we go early bird even if we aren’t seeing a show, which suits our love of discounts (we’re only human, after all) as well as our need to be in bed by 9:30 pm. It’s all about finding a system.

VII – Until I Win the Lottery...

Still working at the day care, which is nice – though not as nice as it used to be, as some staff members left and everybody shifted positions, and now the whole vibe of the place is different. What can you do.

Funny story: a boy named Patrick was the page boy at his uncle’s wedding, except that his sister’s name is Page and he wasn’t having any of it, but insisted on being called the Patrick boy instead.

Also funny was when I went into work when I was still a bit under the weather, so I had long pants on and was wearing my glasses, which the children had never seen. Fully half of the kids were too shy to talk to me, for whatever reason. Did they actually not know who I was? I’m not sure. They hid behind other staff members, though, or inched towards me and waited for me to make a move – it was crazy. Then, once we got past the initial anxiety and they were okay with me again, all they could talk about all day was the fact that I was wearing glasses. Why was I wearing them? Why didn’t I always wear them? And I do mean all day, including bringing their parents over to see me at pick-up time, to show them this incredible phenomenon, Katy with glasses. I don’t think I’ll wear them again.

(Three-year-old Sasha, seeing me in long pants (khakis) and glasses: Why are you wearing jeans? And why are you wearing sunglasses?)

Then, of course, there’s school. It took a while for the calls to start coming in, as school only started in February – and was shut down for almost a week because of the cyclone – and it takes a while for teachers to start taking sick days and requiring relief teachers. My first day back was a pretty good day, grade one at a Catholic school I’d never been to, so that was promising – and then I went back to Mareeba. (The school with the rubber room.) The short version is that the two major ‘events’ of the day were first when I broke up an intense fight in my grade five class, having to wedge myself in and use my body as a shield to protect one of the boys, and then later when I pulled one boy off the one he was strangling (completely unprovoked; I was there the whole time) and he turned on me and engaged in fully a five-minute physical struggle until help, in the form of the behaviour management team, finally arrived and someone else took over (and was equally attacked) while I got the other kids back in the class. I mean, that’s some crazy shit, right? It’s always a bit wild there, and I’ve witnessed and dealt with more than my share of fights – which is why I’m so good at the straight-jacket hold, a big help in this situation – but no one has ever directly come at me before. I was covered in red marks, to the point where someone asked me how I got such an erratic sunburn. I was also told to lock the door because he was at large in the school, and he did come back and try to kick the door in before they finally got him off the property, to the great excitement of the whole class.

To be fair, this was one kid’s random freak-out and it’s not like I’m in danger every time I walk into the school, so I’ve decided to go ahead and honour the other dates I’ve made with them, but if anything even remotely similar ever happens again, I’m getting in my car, driving home, taking my name off their list and never going back. There have to be easier ways to make money.

VIII – Acts of God

Now, if you’re, say, my mother, and you wish I weren’t so far away, then it doesn’t help that every time you hear news about the part of the world where I live, it’s something catastrophic. Flooding, then the cyclone, then more flooding, then tsunami warnings... Is it just a matter of time before this Pacific curse catches up to me personally and something goes seriously wrong? I don’t know.

There’s a lot of flooding in this area right now. Last week the highway was blocked and traffic was backed up for hours. Some kids, leaving their houses at 7:30 or 8:00 for what is normally a fifteen- or twenty-minute drive, didn’t get to day care until after noon. (You can imagine the level of crankiness in the air that day.) Probably half of the city’s population lives where we do, in the Northern Beaches, so when the highway is blocked, nobody can get to work and everything shuts down. In which case, you’d think people would just turn around and stay home, but people were on that highway for hours, either inching along or just sitting there. One lady left her car and walked down to the day care to use the toilet, and nobody had moved an inch when she got back. (The kids and I were watching; cars and trucks are their absolute favourite thing. Well, after tractors and diggers, of course.) Townsville has been cut off from all supplies coming through, and the rain isn’t showing any signs of letting up, so it’s definitely a rough year for Queensland.

As for the tsunami warnings, some sources say we’re in the danger zone and others (like the Australian tsunami-watch group) say there’s no problem. I guess it depends on what happens with follow-up quakes, but we have our fingers crossed – for ourselves and all Pacific dwellers – that those unnecessarily hostile tectonic plates just give it a rest for a while. Amen.


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